West of Loathing review

What measure of meat is a man?

When I worked in the computer lab at UC Santa Cruz, installing games was strictly against the rules, but we could browse the internet to our heart’s content. Browser games, especially ones that were largely text-based, were all that stood between me and smashing the perpetually-jammed printers to bits. My favorite of the glut of browser RPGs available in the early aughts was Asymmetric Publications’ Kingdom of Loathing. An irreverent medieval fantasy romp with surprising depth, Kingdom of Loathing featured an elaborate crafting and cooking system, devilish quest chains and a sense of humor that blended clever parody with over-the-top absurdism. Imagine my delight when I discovered West of Loathing (WoL), a western-themed single player RPG available for PC, Mac and Linux. Would WoL capture the humor, complexity and world-building that I loved in its online big brother?

While not necessarily a sequel, West of Loathing is clearly an extension of Kingdom of Loathing. People still spend Meat instead of money, measure their abilities based on muscle, mysticality, and moxie, and live in a world populated with crudely drawn stick figures. If you enjoyed Kingdom of Loathing and are into westerns at all, you will like West of Loathing. It’s fresh content and a new setting with all the comfortable trappings of a game you enjoyed. Feel free to check out of the review now. 

For anyone who never played Kingdom of Loathing, the rest of this review is for you. You’ll be pleased to know the game stands well on its own: you don’t need to know anything about Kingdom of Loathing to play WoL. In fact, based on my recollection of a game I played 13 years ago, there aren’t even many in-jokes or references to the old game.

West of Loathing is a standard single-player RPG. You customize your character from one of three classes:

  • The muscle-based, melee-focused Cow Puncher
  • The mysticality-based, spell-casting Beanslinger
  • The moxie-based, poison-crafting Snake Oiler

The graphics are intentionally low quality; black and white stick figures abound. This is a holdover from Kingdom of Loathing and it would be disconcerting if everyone was suddenly in full color and 3D. The simplicity of the art doesn’t interfere with the variety in the game. Each location looks distinct and interesting, your weapons and clothing dramatically change the way you look, and you can quickly identify the objects you’re supposed to interact with in each location. 

The gameplay is even simpler than the art: basically, you wander the Wild West completing quests and getting into fights. You’ll visit dozens of locations where you might encounter enemies or complete skill-challenges (where you’re able to perform specific actions if one of your stats is at a high enough level or if you possess a specific skill). Combat is turn-based and uncomplicated. You can choose between your ranged or melee attacks, use a special ability or a combat item, then sit while your enemies return fire. Repeat until everyone is dead. You’re healed fully after each combat encounter.

There is one wrinkle worth mentioning: the fights in this game are wildly unbalanced. Most of the time, you’ll either be so weak that you’re slaughtered before you can act or so strong that your opponents can’t even hurt you. Eventually your stats will be amped so high that every fight will be in the latter category. Successful fights or completing skill challenges earn XP that can be allocated to increasing stats, improving special abilities, or increasing skills. Most fights can be avoided and in the later parts of the game you’ll likely take that option, unless some monster is carrying an object you’re hunting for.

Your enemies are more varied than the monsters in, say, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but not by much. Omitting some spoiler foes, you’ll mostly fight the undead, wily bandits, demon cows, and snakes of various elemental power. Within a few hours you’ll definitely kill at least one type of everything available to kill.

To counterbalance the combat difficulty curve, there are enough stat-boosting items or effects consumables that within a few hours of playing you’ll be able to handily overcome the most daunting skill checks by changing a few articles of clothing. You can eat food, swig liquor, and equip weapons to boost your stats or provide defense to certain kinds of elemental damage.

The writing is sharp, if shallow. You never really get to know any of the characters or care much about them, but the references are clever and sly, the humor sharp, and the characters varied enough that I always read the flavor text in every encounter or location. Little throwaway jokes are scattered throughout the world, hidden on book titles and on tombstones.

Where West of Loathing really shines, however, is in its varied and plentiful quest chains. Some are simple fetch quests, but most involve clever problem solving, deductive reasoning, or anagram skills. There is an almost overwhelming amount of content; I’ve completed two playthroughs so far, clocking approximately 26 hours of play time, and I’m certain I haven’t even discovered all of the quests. I keep coming across quest items that I have no idea what they’re used for. In addition to the main quest, there are at least four major plotlines to unravel. I’m pretty sure I’ll need to start a third playthrough to complete the other two.

Therein lies my biggest complaint about West of Loathing. While combat is simple and largely consequence-free, the game is unforgiving when it comes to completing quests. There’s no real save system; you just continue from an autosave whenever you end the game. Because of this, there’s almost no way to recover from doing a quest out of order or making a wrong choice that leads to a dead end. Did you throw a cursed idol into a pit? It seemed like a good idea two hours ago (and the 60 XP you got from the action was nice) but now you need that idol and there’s no way to get it back. The good news is that there are multiple ways to complete each of the sections of the main quest. Even so, it’s a frustrating experience if you don’t want to start from scratch to see most of what the game has to offer. Even resuming a saved game at the start of each day (a la Stardew Valley) would be a dramatic improvement.

This brings me to another frustration with the game. In the tutorial you’re told so much, and the game appears to be so simple, that you think that you know everything about the game by the time you arrive in the hub city of Dirtwater. The game doesn’t bother to reveal vital mechanics of the game, like the process of sleeping. If you return to your room in Dirtwater, you can sleep. This removes any status effect, resets the stomach, liver and spleen counters that limit how much food, drink and potions you can eat and shuffles the stock at the various stores. I played for five hours thinking the only way to eat additional food was to raise the stat that controls your stomach capacity. Another example is the mechanics behind the skill of lockpicking: when you approach a lock that can be picked, you’re told that you need a needle. Where do you get a needle? Is it a quest item, is it something you get from killing monsters? It turns out you can occasionally buy needles from stores or find them hidden in the haystacks found around ranches and in barns. I had no idea that you could even interact with the haystacks!

Despite complaints about a punishing save system and being forced to experiment to discover all of the game’s mechanics (and the frustrations that abound when your experimentation ruins your ability to complete a section of the game), I still wholeheartedly recommend West of Loathing. Whether you’re a long time Kingdom of Loathing fan or completely new to the world, you’ll find lots of humor RPG fun and enough content to keep you busy for days.

Verdict: Yeehaw